If you’re reading this you probably already know that UX Designer is in the top 5 highest demand job roles in the market. It also is a somewhat creative vocation, but does complicate things with psychology, politics, and science. However, many of those can be learned and applied on the job through experiential learning.
How to Become a UX Designer with No Experience
Memoirs of a UX Mentor
I myself have 17 years of design experience. I first began as a graphic web designer at the Center of Teaching and Learning in 2006 under then Director Debbie Stanzak. Thereafter, I got a job at a small graphic print shop dubbed The Printing Plant in 2008 where I’d work for 3 years while simultaneously getting a degree in industrial design. (I wanted to be a shoe or automotive designer.) After graduating in 2011, my family and I moved out to San Diego for the weather. It was in San Diego, CA that I recognized the job market moving in the direction of digital product rather than physical product. I got a job on Craigslist as a Graphic Web Print Designer once again, this time at a fashion eCommerce Startup named Erynz LLC. There under then CEO Victor’s direction, I would attempt to apply CSS and HTML, two languages I had briefly used at The Printing Plant and learned getting my bachelors at SIUC, but with much imposter syndrome. However, this would serve as my breaking of the ice officially into the web and digital foray.
Rebranding Your Personal Brand
That same year, after Erynz quietly snuffed out, I would get hired at a social media startup. There I would pursue coding more handily than I had prior at Erynz or The Printing Plant. Then one day, all of the sudden, I was re-reading Don Norman’s “Design of Everyday Things” when it dawned on me, thanks in part to Don, that “Wait a second. I’m not just a graphic, web, industrial, product, print designer, no! I’m a UX Designer.” There sitting in a cubicle in an office in San Diego, CA, I rebranded myself a UX Designer. Sure by then I had been a designer for the better part of 5+ years, but who’s counting?
Did people at the social media startup, Vionic, believe I was a UX Designer? Probably not, but that’s because it’s easier to convince new people who you are, than it is to try and convince ol’ people you’ve changed. Remember this, because in your effort to become a UX Designer with no experience, “rebranding” your personal brand is apart of the strategy.
Now, let’s back up a bit. How the hell did I become a designer without any experience in 2006? How did I get the job at The Center of Teaching and Learning at Vincennes University? Well, for starters I did enroll there in attempt to obtain enough credits to transfer to Southern Illinois University. Yet, truly how did I get the role without ever designing on the computer before? The short answer is Networking.
Networking is the secret to anyone’s success. No wonder sales people regular keep a CRM (Customer Retention Management) software at the ready. They’re constantly checking in with people they previously spoke with to see if they need their product or service still, or not. As a self-made UX Designer were going to need to rely on networking especially so we can get the opportunity, or let’s say walk through the open door ready or not. As they say, “luck is 50% readiness and 50% opportunity.” This is why I created UXPRENEUR in the first place. I was seeing so many of my mentees and students struggle with “no experience.”
Over the past 5 years, since 2017 really, I’ve had the opportunity to mentor students and senior designers transitioning into UX for the first time. My philosophy has been very different and in stark contrast to my peers that are also mentors. My approach is to treat students as entrepreneurs. Changing student paradigms from thinking “this project is my assignment. It is for a grade. It is not real. Projects are only real if they are paid for and funded by an employer.” STOP. I’ve been changing paradigms for the past 5 years, and this type of thinking is what prevents people from getting a job even if they have a degree.
Many of my mentees over the past 5 years have even had Masters’ or sometimes Doctorate degrees in some other field. Yet, because of economic hardship they’ve sought to become a UX Designer due to it’s growth YOY (year over year.) It’s in high demand and it pays suitably well in comparison to others. Something like $90K is the salary for UX Designers, and that’s the national average if I’m not mistaken. Yet, even if we graduated from Carnegie Mellon you’d still have to start from ground zero according to the gatekeepers of “experience” judgement. Well, not on my watch!
If you’ve got burnt bridges in your Roladex of friends and family, then practicing leadership is in order. You can reach out to them and ask for forgiveness in holding that grudge on them. This is the first step not only towards leadership but to broadening your network affect. Eat “crow” and “humble pie” overcome this, and the rest will feel downhill, because it truly is. Some of us out there are introvert, and I understand that, so is my wife. I myself am fortunate enough to be extrovert so approaching people cold and being outspoken is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes I say the wrong thing and look dumb. It’s true. But that’s ok. You’d don’t have to create this phony facade of perfection. Indeed in life, and in our portfolios, “Failure is the best teacher.”
The portfolio of work is one of the most important and significant documents you can create and focus on. Now, what if you have nothing in which to put in it? Great question! To become a UX Designer with no experience, you’re going to essentially have to practice what Pieter Levels did in early 2016 I want to say. Well, any way, Pieter Levels is a serial entrepreneur who created 12 startups in 12 months. It was a personal challenge to himself and one that caught wind of journalists who definitely assisted in helping broaden his network. Now, not all of his startups were successful, but a few were. This is the same character and approach you want to take when beginning your transition as a UX Designer. Indeed, instead of saying “how to become a UX Designer with no experience” you might want to ask yourself “how to start a business with no customers?” Welcome to entrepreneurship. But in all seriousness treat your portfolio much like a Venture Capitalist does with their portfolios. You have to diversify your portfolio of work in your case businesses because not all will succeed outside extraordinary luck. Now, how’d I get my second design job at The Printing Plant with the worst portfolio ever? Easy I was persistent.
If you want to be something whether your an entrepreneur or not, you need to stay focused and persist even in the face of nay sayers. It was the summer of 2008, I had just moved back to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL. I didn’t have a job. I had just quit my job back in Vincennes University, and told myself that I would never be a waiter again! That summer I would even take on a job as a caterer at the University. Because I had made this internal bargain within myself, I went to each and every design agency I could find in Carbondale, IL. Silkworm, Arthur Agency, and The Printing Plant. Every place turned me down, but The Printing Plant was smaller, and I saw less people working there. It was in a prime location on Main St. I came back in each day or week in a row, I can’t remember now, asking to talk to the owner. I didn’t know it but it was the owners brother Justin who kept telling me “No, he’s not available.” Until one day Jason, the owner, overheard us talking, and came out from the back to see what was going on? That’s when I said, I was wondering if they’re hiring, if they had seen my portfolio and resume, and if I could talk with the owner. That’s when Jason said, “I’m going to lunch in 20 minutes, meet me at the restaurant next door, and I’ll look at your portfolio.” I had broke through the veil! This is where you find entry level UX designer jobs no experience! You could’ve even called this a UX design internship no experience. But the moral is “perseverance.” If you want to become a UX Designer with no experience you’ve got to go get experience. Now, I showed Jason the worst most embarrassing portfolio imaginable. It wasn’t until the last slide that he was like, “Ok this is like something we might do.” It was a poster for the National Portfolio Day Contest in which I didn’t win. If it wasn’t for peers at Vincennes University who took a different certificate track than I did, I took the degree track, then I probably wouldn’t of had the confidence I did with thinking to myself, “wait a minute. If those students in the certificate program can get a job after 2 years, who’s to say I couldn’t?” Well, as it turns out I didn’t need a 4 year bachelors to get my first design job. I didn’t even need a great portfolio. Mind you I worked for minimum wage, and only got a raise 2 years into the role, but I was an official designer! At any rate, networking, persistence , a portfolio (although crappy), and my personal brand helped secure my foothold into design. I want these things to work for you too! That’s why I started UXPRENEUR.
You see back in 2001, I started my very first business. I didn’t know it at the time, but now decades later, I understand that entrepreneurship runs in my family on my mother’s side who runs her own caregiving business in Springfield, IL to this day. Back in 2001 I started a band with 3 peers in High School. It was successful too. We got 2nd place in battle of the bands in St. Louis, MO. We made enough money to afford equipment, tour the midwest from Iowa to Indiana, and still had enough for Wendy’s. However, that all came to a hault when parted our separate ways to attend college a cultural norm and social pressure campaign from our families and society in which we succumbed. Looking back, I realize that was a mistake. But hindsight is 20/20. Many people today see how the University system has taken millions of dollars , if not billions, from people, and how those students struggle to pay off their student loan debt. My bandmates and I could’ve avoided that whole train wreck had we stayed persistent. I mean it takes 10 years to become an overnight success, and we could’ve hit it big in 2011. Right!? Ok, who knows. But the moral of the story is that business is the shortest path to becoming a UX Designer with no experience.
Now one could argue that I’ve had a turn of luck. You see my first design job which was more of an assistant role was warranted not by merit but because someone I knew introduced me and referred me for the position. Essentially, I was tasked with doing many things, and design just so happen to be like 1/10 of those things. Yet, it was the first pixel I pushed for money, so I’ll take what I can get. You see you need to use a similar strategy. Use your network to find, yes, an opportunity through referrals. All of the best sales and marketing gurus know that referrals are the best source of clients. You just have to be brave enough to ask without asking. You know what I mean?
For example, “Hey, How’ve you been? Good. Oh me? I’m doing well. Guess what! I recently made a career change. Yeah, I’m a UX Designer now. No kidding. Do you know anyone in your close circle of friends that might need a web designer or anything like that?”
First of all I led the conversation with them, not me. Secondly, I egged on with suspense by asking them to “guess what?” this only encourages them to listen more intently. Then I made a climactic statement that I’ve “transitioned in my career” what a resounding moment in one’s life, and your friend is apart of it in this moment. Finally, we’re inviting them to think about who they know in their network that might need their service, and to keep you in mind if so. It’s an easy ask, yet you’ll have to make sure to checkin weekly with these referrers otherwise they’ll forget. Nothing to be embarrassed about this is business 101 and sales & marketing for that matter. Even if you don’t like it, and you’re not a people person, you’ll still have to come to terms with it for a while until your business gets off the ground, then you can delegate the task to a Virtual Assistant or something. For me, this comfortably happens at $20K MRR. Once I pull that in, I feel comfortable hiring a VA. For you it might be different.
So far we’ve covered things like persistence, portfolio, networking, personal brand, and business. These are the secret keys to entering UX Design without credentials. You can gain experience by yourself pursuing your own entrepreneurial pursuits. Compare it to getting loans and going to school. You’ll see that the ROI (return on investment) is much sooner when it comes to getting a loan and investing in yourself. Today, one can utilize Youtube, ChatGPT, and online tools to learn on the fly rather than spend $200K going to an Ivy League just to find out they have to start from scratch after graduation all over again. Sure they have some credential in their resume, and perhaps some alumni network, but that’s at least 2 years and several thousands of dollars away. Even an online MBA can run provide you with a little more ROI than the traditional route, but you’ll still have to start from scratch experience wise. Instead it’s much better to embrace the fact that by default the IRS taxes you as self-employed in the United States, so you’re an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is a self-funded individual. You were going to fund yourself to go to school or some bootcamp, then why not at least take a whack at taking 1/10 of that $10K you’d otherwise spend on bootcamp certificate or online MBA and buy a domain name?
Buy a domain name on Porkbun, one of the cheapest around I’ve seen, for each project idea you’ve got. It’s less that $10 a domain name for the year. Buy some cheap hosting on Hostinger. Install WordPress. Install Elementor Plugin. Design a landing page, even if it looks ugly. “Ugly before pretty.” I always say. And begin selling. If you’re at all appalled by this notion, you don’t have to build a website, although that does add to the mystique. You can also throw together a slide presentation. 10 slides. And use that PDF as a sales and marketing pitch deck. I use Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule and you can use it too. The point is you’ve just got to be discoverable somehow. It’s going to take manual labor. You’re going to have to literally get out in front of people either in-person or online. In person is the fastest easiest way I know how. You can just go door to door on Main street in your local town. Listen to the business owners and their woes. Remember that cognitive avoidance, everyone tries to avoid problems, so you’ll have to be patient as a psycho analyst. Wait and listen to see if there’s a business problem they have that you might be able to solve. I use SPIN Selling to close the sale myself. The Design process always starts with the sales of the design services. Overtime you’ll come to realize opportunities for automating this service design through digitization or delegation. Yet, at first, as an entrepreneur, you’ll do all the work yourself. Learning by doing is the best way to retain the knowledge. If you read a book, it’s important to immediately apply what you’ve learned. Just like this blog post, it’s important to put it into practice immediately. Take notes, that gets you half way, but enacting it the next day is best. There’s online ways of getting yourself in front of people too. Replying to people with thoughtful, mindful, and valuable responses on Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, just to name a few. I’ve even seen web designers post on Facebook Marketplace. The key to having a pipeline of customers is to cultivate a group forum of people that share the same problem. You’re not trying to sell anything, it’s just a place people can go. If you don’t know what problem, that’s ok you’re in the right place, you merely need to go out door to door, ask, and listen to other people’s problems. It’s also ok to start with your own personal problem. Yet, you have to be open minded enough to pivot and maneuver your preconceived notion of what the problem is when new information comes along. The last thing an entrepreneur is is close minded. Remember “Stay Foolish” is the mantra, meaning always be learning and growing, because there’s more we don’t know than that which we do know. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t learn something new myself. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants, and apart of being humble is knowing we don’t always have the answers, so it’s important to keep that ego in check. Mentors can really help accelerate your path to success too. In fact that’s what a professor at a college is suppose to be anyway, but they may be too far removed for far too long from the business realm. Believe me I’ve worked in academia. Instead keeping a spreadsheet of all the people you see online whether it’s LinkedIn or Twitter, that you look up too and would like to work with, don’t hesitate to pull their information with RocketReach one of those amazing tools that scrounges up their email address for you online some where. Then utilize Woodpecker to send a mass email to them all, but in a personalized way. This way you hold accountable your cold outreach template. Sooner or later you’ll find a person that is present enough and at the right time and place to become a mentor. I myself have been there, and today offer coaching for $1.50 per minute on my website Great2BNate.com/Contact. Shameless plug I know. But this is truly how to become a UX designer with no experience. I would know because I’ve lived it.
How do I become a UX Designer for beginners? Checklist:
• 2015 Macbook Pro 13″ 16GB Ram 512GB Storage (Affordable, long lasting, great battery life. Enough power for your UX Design Daily Grind.)
• Figma: It’s free, but setup an account this is where the industry is.
• Sketchbook: Cheapest the better. I burn through these.
• Bold Ball Point Pen: I use 1.6mm Bic Atlantis, it feels just right. We need bold lines so people can see our pictures.
• iPhone SE: The smallest most affordable iPhone because “Mobile-first” design small screens first because scaling up is easier than cramming sardines.
• Internet: Couldn’t stress this enough. You’re going to need 100MB Internet at least for Zoom Video Calls.
• Zoom: Free account gives you 40 minutes. This gets annoying, so you may have to start and restart.
• Calendly: This is great for sending people your Calendly link where they can book on your schedule’s availability. It really turns the table, and it’s an alpha move.
• Domain: You’re going to need your own personal brand domain name.
• New Photographs: You’re going to want to take professional photos of you not only at the park, but at a co-working space nearby. A picture is worth 1000 words. Be professional NOT sexy.
• Hosting: You’re going to need server space in the cloud.
• WordPress: It’s the free way to install a blog on your platform.
• Elementor: It’s the easy way to design the layout.
• LLC: This is maybe a bit advanced for some but really legitimizes the whole business aspect. I used LegalZoom for mine, but you can save money by going into the local city hall and paying for your Limited Liability Corporation. It saves your ass when some client wants to sue you. They can’t take your house or car or assets that are personal. In addition you get an EIN number which is like your social security number. You can use it on your W9s and 1099s for contract work. Again makes you stand out as legit.
• Credit Card: For me the $1,500 cashback incentive from Chase Ink was too good to be true. I used it to pay my Mint Phone Bill, you know Mint that Ryan Renolds started and T Mobile just acquired? Yeah. It’s only $200 per year for 5G LTE. Anyway, you can use your Chase Ink to meet the minimum requirement to pay your bills a year in advance. Then you get the cash in hand. Remember that Macbook I mentioned up top? Yeah, one of those is going for $700 on Ebay or Backmarket right now. That leaves you with like $800 left over.
• Gmail Account: You can do alot with Gmail. Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and more. You’ll need this for free basic business items. You can also splurge like I did and have Gmail control your domain address email as well. It just fits my workflow. But if you want to save $6 / mo. Then you can just have your hosting provider forward your emails to your regular gmail. It’s free.
• Upwork, Fiverr, Freelancer, etc… These are great platforms to meet n greet clients that truly do need your services. Setting up your account on here, and charging low rates, can help you secure some early projects.
• Contract: I’ve used a contract from Docracy for 6 years. Docracy just got acquired so it’s no longer up and running. I’ll be sharing it out soon. Essentialy you want to protect your right to show and dispaly your portfolio because that’s how you get more clients.
Contract work is usually the doorway into any new field. UX Design is one of those fields. Art & Design in general is made up of 70+% contract roles. So only 30% or less is actual full-time or part-time W2 roles.
• Usability Hub: I use Usability Hub to get quick user data back on my designs. It’s only $1 per user, and it now syncs with Figma. I couldn’t recommend it more for your case studies.
• UXFOl.io : UXfolio I’ve found is a great option if you’re overwhelmed by the whole Domain, Hosting, and WordPress sequence up top. It’s like an all in one stop shop you know? Just expect to pay a bit more out of pocket.
To be continued…